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Down Applewood Road

Applewood Road 2Applewood Road, a trio of female singer-songwriters, recorded their first album around a single microphone. Last night they went one better, clustering around an upright piano at the side of the stage in the Exmouth Market Centre to perform their encore with no amplification whatever.

Recorded direct to two-track quarter-inch tape, with no edits or overdubs, Applewood Road has the kind of intimacy you might expect. Released by Gearbox Records, specialists in vinyl, it’s a record of great warmth and charm.

Those qualities were certainly on view at the launch gig, part of a short UK tour. Emily Barker, Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace met in a Nashville coffee shop in late 2014, with the intention of seeing if they could write songs together. “Applewood Road”, written the next day, was their first effort; the album otherwise consists of songs they wrote separately, or with other partners.

“Applewood Road” is a harmony song, and when I first heard them sing it together, at Gearbox’s offices a few months ago, the sound gave me chills. Barker (who I’ve written about before, here) is from Australia, Rubarth grew up in California and Speace is from Baltimore, but at times they can sound as if they spent their childhoods singing together around a family hearth in the Appalachians. The best work they do together — like their spellbinding cover of “Losing My Religion”, or “To the Stars”, which Rubarth wrote with Adam Levy, or “I’m Not Afraid Any More”, by Barker with Robby Hecht — mostly involves the three of them as equal contributors to the vocal blend.

There are other musicians on the album, just a handful, but last night the singers provided their own accompaniment, switching between banjos, an acoustic resonator bass guitar, harmonica, and Emily’s vintage Gibson acoustic guitar. Each of them also performed a song at the stageside piano during the three short solo sets that made up the first half of the evening.

Speace, who has made six solo albums since 2002 and had a song, “Way of the World” recorded by Judy Collins in 2010, exudes a calm authority that the other two have yet to attain. She was once an actress, describes herself as a folk singer, and has a voice somewhere between Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter, with the poise of the former, the emotional richness of the latter, and a soul of her own. Her individual set started with a fine song called “The Sea and the Shore”. As a member of the trio, there’s a presence about her that gives depth and focus to the whole group.

* The photograph (from left: Speace, Rubarth, Barker) was taken at Exmouth Market Centre by Andy Barnes.

Mike Westbrook’s Bigger Show

The Uncommon Orchestra image 1The great English jazz composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook turns 80 next month — on March 21, to be exact. His long career is studded with extended works of great ambition and achievement: Marching Song, Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315, The Westbrook BlakeThe Cortège (his masterpiece, for my money), On Duke’s Birthday, London Bridge Is Broken Down, Mama Chicago, and others. What began in the late 1960s as a distinctively Westbrookian conception of jazz — with undertones of the approach Ellington and Mingus took to blending composition and improvisation — was broadened by an engagement with street theatre and brass bands, and by a collaboration with his wife, the singer and librettist Kate Westbrook, on pieces that reflected the influence of Berlin theatre song and British music hall.

And now there’s another magnum opus to celebrate. A Bigger Show is a piece in eight sections, lasting almost two hours, performed by Westbrook’s latest large ensemble, the Uncommon Orchestra, a 21-piece unit based around his home in Devon. Due to its size, it doesn’t often show its face. But last summer a recording of the piece was made at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre, and the results — produced by Jon Hiseman — are out now on a 2CD set.

The suite was inspired by the old St Bartholomew’s Day fair, which took place in Smithfield, in the City of London, continuously between the 12th and 19th centuries until it was closed down in 1855 on the grounds of excessive rowdiness and debauchery. Back in 1975 Westbrook’s Brass Band took part in a production of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, and the idea grew into its present incarnation.

Once again the Westbrooks’ vision of modern life finds powerful expression in a work featuring rousing and often turbulent ensemble work with instrumental solos of real substance from such familiar figures as Alan Wakeman on soprano and tenor saxophones and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet and Sousaphone, and newer names like the altoist Roz Harding, the trumpeter Sam Massey and the tenorist Gary Bayley. As has been the case with Mike Westbrook since the beginning of his career, the improvisations emerge from the arrangements in an organic and dramatically satisfying way — the work of composer who has paid close (but never imitative) attention to the lessons handed out by Ellington, Mingus and Gil Evans.

The tone is variously raucous and tender, celebratory and scathing. Kate Westbrook’s lyrics, sung by herself, Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, are etched in acid (particularly in a song satirising the social media). Human nature and human behaviour, they suggest, are little altered since the days of Blake and Hogarth: in an era when the gap between affluence and poverty is widening rapidly, only the superficial symptoms of excess and deprivation differ.

All this is achieved with a courage, a vigour and a generosity of spirit always characteristic of Mike Westbrook’s work. A Bigger Show is ambitious, thought-provoking, and exhilarating; when it ends, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey. Perhaps one day his extended pieces will be acclaimed as belonging among the most acutely relevant cultural artefacts of our time. Until then, here’s a new one to treasure.

* A Bigger Show is released on ASC Records. Westbrook and the Uncommon Orchestra will perform the piece at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton on April 1, Kings Place in London on May 20, and the Plough Arts Centre in Torrington on June 10.

Maurice White 1941-2016

Maurice WhiteWhen Maurice White told me that he’d deputised for the absent Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet at a Chicago jazz club called McKie’s in the early 1960s, I was as impressed as I’d been by anything Earth, Wind & Fire had played at the OMNI arena in Atlanta the previous night.

It had been quite a gig, however, full of smoke and mirrors — the musicians materialising in transparent perspex tubes which had descended from above, and dematerialising as they made their departure, and the bass-guitarist (Verdine White, Maurice’s brother) levitating during his solo spot — with costumes from ancient Egypt, as well as red-hot playing. This was February 1978, and EW&F were the happening thing, to the extent that a bunch of journalists had been flown from Europe to witness their show.

Maurice hadn’t touched a drum throughout the set, but during the interview at their hotel the next morning that’s what I got him talking about. I knew that he’d succeeded Al Duncan, who kept the backbeat snapping on Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and devised those lovely fills on the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”, as the leading studio drummer for R&B and soul sessions by Chicago labels such as Chess and Vee-Jay.

“When I came out of school, he was THE drummer locally,” Maurice said of Duncan. “But he had a drinking problem, so I started getting dates. And I was ‘young blood’. Of course, I learnt a lot from being around him.”

Having taken Duncan’s place, he played on Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me”, Ramsey Lewis’s “Wade in the Water”, Billy Stewart’s wild recasting of “Summertime”, and almost certainly the Dells’ widescreen classics of 1968-69, the remakes of “Oh What a Night” and “Stay in My Corner” and the fabulous “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)”, co-written by Terry Callier.

He had grown up in the 1950s, he said, in the Chicago jazz scene with a generation of musicians who would turn out to be significant, including the pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, the saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and the drummer Steve McCall, who was a particularly close friend. “At the time I simply wanted to be the world’s greatest drummer,” Maurice said.

It was meeting Charles Stepney that broadened his horizons. A pianist and arranger who began by idolising Bud Powell (“I think Eddie Harris turned him on to that”) and Burt Bacharach, Stepney worked as a staff arranger and producer at Chess, on the Dells’ records and those of his own creation, the Rotary Connection. Their bond lasted until Stepney’s death in 1976. White admired Stepney’s musical ambition: “He also listened to classical composers, and he evolved through jazz.”

White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1966, but left in 1970 to move to LA, where he formed the first version of EW&F. It was with the second incarnation of the band, signed by Clive Davis to Columbia Records in 1975, that the hits started coming.

In Atlanta, even in the midst of all the space-age vaudeville presentation, which drove an  almost entirely African American audience of 15,000 crazy with delight, I was impressed by the precision and inventiveness of the band, particularly the Phenix Horns, among whom the saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk stood out. The music may have been glittered up for the disco generation, but the role of the musicians was no different from that of their predecessors in Percy Mayfield’s, Ray Charles’s or James Brown’s bands: they were jazz musicians adapting their skills to the popular blues-based dance music of the day.

When I asked Maurice afterwards about the lavish presentation, with its Nubian gong-bashers and its Tutankhamun masks, he told me he’d been studying Egyptology for three or four years. But I was suddenly struck by a thought. Who had done this sort of thing before — and not only that, but in the Chicago jazz scene in the 1950s, when the young drummer was coming up? So I asked him about it.

“Sun Ra?” Maurice replied. “Yes, I saw him in Chicago. He had a light on top of his head. I thought he was crazy.”

* Maurice White died this week, aged 74. Here is the New York Times obituary.

John Cale in the round

John Cale RoundhouseThrough his contribution to the first two Velvet Underground albums, John Cale was one of the people who shifted the tectonic plates of popular music in the 20th century. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect more. But I always believed, based on his work with La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate, the three albums of archive material from 1965-69 released by Table of the Elements a few years ago, his arrangements on Nico’s The Marble Index, his collaboration with Terry Riley on The Church of Anthrax, his instrumental music for the Warhol films Eat and Kiss, and various other pieces of evidence, that he had the potential to go a long way beyond the rock and roll template into which he settled with Vintage ViolenceParis 1919 and their various successors, whatever his occasional flirtations with punkish sedition (such as the line “We could all feel safe/Like Sharon Tate” which so upset the Island Records hierarchy in 1976).

The weird thing about Cale was that so much of his post-Velvets music sounded like the Velvets had never existed, which was why it was so pleasing to hear the way he treated “(I Keep a) Close Watch” at the Roundhouse last night, during his spot in a week-long series called In the Round which has also been featuring Marianne Faithfull, Edwyn Collins, Mulatu Astatke, Scritti Politti and others.

Even if, like many of his songs from the mid-’70s, it sounds as though he never quite got round to completing it, “Close Watch” remains Cale’s most poignantly affecting ballad. It’s perfectly fine when sung straight and solo, as he did with the version included in the excellent Fragments of a Rainy Season, recorded during a 1992 tour and released by Hannibal that same year. But last night he and his three-piece band subjected it to a complete overhaul, stretching its sturdy sinews and ligaments almost to snapping point with an arrangement based on waves and surges of growling, shrieking electronic sound. It was a mighty noise, and it gave the song a devastating impact.

Wearing a conductor’s black tail coat, black T-shirt and jeggings and brown lace-up ankle boots, with his hair dyed silvery blonde in a sort of Small-Faces-circa-Itchycoo Park style, Cale was in relatively genial mood, although he didn’t say much. There was a “Hello, London — good to see you” and an unsatisfactory introduction to his keyboards-player (doubling bass guitar), guitarist and drummer, both of whom doubled on electronic bits and pieces: “This is Nick, this is Dusty, and this is (indecipherable).” Given the attitude with which the three musicians approached arrangements that required not just precision but commitment, and in the absence of any other way for the audience to identify them, he might have done better.

The repertoire in his 100-minute set included “Coral Moon”, “Changes Made”, “Hemingway” and a densely propulsive final pass at Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso”, a reminder of what a creative rearranger of other people’s classics he can be. But, with the exception of “Close Watch”, it was still mostly generic rock and roll. At 73, and seemingly in good nick, there’s time for him to stretch his capacious intellect and wide range of technical skills in other directions once more. I do wish he would.

Larry Young rediscovered

Larry Young 4When a friend asked me this week to name the most memorable gig I’ve ever attended, I could answer him in a heartbeat: the Tony Williams Lifetime at the Marquee on October 6, 1970. Nothing has ever felt more like the future exploding in the audience’s ears.

The organist Larry Young was a part of that band, along with John McLaughlin on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass guitar and Williams on drums. Earlier in the year I’d heard them at Ungano’s, a New York club, without Bruce but with Miles Davis leaning against the bar in a tan suede patchwork suit, listening intently, his silver Lamborghini Miura parked at the kerb outside on West 70th Street.

In such places, i.e. clubs with a capacity of around 200, Lifetime were mercilessly volcanic. And Young, the least-known member of the band, was a vital component of a sound that surged and howled and crashed off the walls.

This was no real surprise to those who’d heard his run of Blue Note albums, which started in 1965 with the release of Into Somethin’, on which he was joined by Sam Rivers (tenor), Grant Green (guitar) and Elvin Jones (drums). It’s one of those great recordings, like Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure and Sam Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song, with which the label made a bridge between hard bop and the avant-garde, creating an inside-outside music that satisfied all kinds of demands.

Young came up in R&B bands, and it might have been expected that he would simply follow the example of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, John Patton, Freddie Roach, Baby Face Willette and all the other Hammond exponents whose playing was strongly influenced by the organ’s traditional role in gospel music. Young’s playing was soulful, certainly, but he steered absolutely clear of cliché. His chosen tone was rounder and softer than that preferred by most of his peers, although it lacked nothing in attack; his nimbleness around the B3 keyboard was unexampled, enabling him to absorb the influence of the new music, and he could more than hold his own alongside McLaughlin and Williams at their most ferocious (listen to “Spectrum” from the first Lifetime album, Emergency!, which is much better than its reputation might suggest, and where, before Bruce’s arrival, he is still using his pedals to supply the bass line).

Miles Davis had included him in the Bitches Brew sessions in 1969, and he had jammed with Hendrix the same year (a track released on Nine to the Universe) shortly before joining Williams’s project. I last saw him in a revamped version of Lifetime at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1971, with Ted Dunbar on guitar and Juni Booth on bass: a much less overwhelming proposition.

By that time he had renamed himself Khalid Yasin. He died in 1978, in slightly mysterious circumstances. Complaining of stomach pains, he checked himself into a hospital, but died there, apparently of untreated pneumonia. He was 37 years old and had just signed a contract with Warner Brothers.

Any new evidence of his talent, then, is to be welcomed, and the 2-CD set titled Larry Young in Paris is a real gift. Recorded in sessions for the ORTF radio network in 1965, the majority of the tracks at the station’s studios but others at the Locomotive night club, it presents him in generally favourable circumstances, with sidemen including the trumpeter Woody Shaw, the tenorist Nathan Davis and the drummers Billy Brooks and Franco Manzecchi.

The music is hard-swinging post-bop spiced with a strong Coltrane influence, signalled by the titles of two compositions: Davis’s “Trane of Thought” and Young’s “Talkin’ About J.C.” (which he had recorded the previous year on Grant Green’s Talkin’ About). More conventional than anything Lifetime attempted, these 105 minutes of music nevertheless offer an extended view of his brilliant melodic imagination and the great sense of swing evident in his comping for the other soloists. Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” and Shaw’s “Zoltan” (which also appeared in a studio version on Young’s Unity) are among the tracks that inspire burning solos from Shaw and Davis. You can hear the music’s gathering sense of adventure starting to strain the seams of the players’ Italian suits.

Issued by Resonance Records with a well edited booklet featuring a great deal of valuable material from the sons of Young and Shaw, plus interviews with Dr Lonnie Smith and Bill Laswell, some background on the Paris scene, and photography by Francis Wolff and Jean-Pierre Leloir, this is a really wonderful discovery.

* The photograph of Larry Young was taken outside the ORTF studios by Francis Wolff.

James Jamerson at 80

James Jamerson 2Had he lived, the most influential of all bass guitarists would have been 80 years old this week: on January 29, to be precise. Many of us will never stop marvelling at the creativity shown by the one and only James Jamerson during an era when session musicians who played his instrument were expected to do little more than mark the song’s chord changes and keep in step with the drummer.

Luckily, Jamerson (who died in 1983) played on so many records during his time as the No 1 bass player in Motown’s Detroit studio — roughly from 1960 to 1972 — that fans like me can spend a lifetime discovering half-buried examples of his artistry. A couple of years ago I wrote here about his contribution to Martha and the Vandellas’ “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. The latest one I can’t stop playing is a Mary Wells obscurity called “I’ve Got a Story”, recorded in 1962 and released a couple of years ago on a Hip-O Select from-the-vaults compilation called Something New: Original Recordings 1961-64.

An irresistibly catchy song by Marvin Gaye and two of Motown’s top backroom boys in the early years, Mickey Stevenson and Hank Cosby, its lyric has Mary telling us about a friend who’s made a disastrous decision to turn love aside before admitting that the fool is, in fact, her (“Now it was me… it was me who lost a real true lover”). It gets a fine Stevenson production featuring a chorus of grainy horns and an ace performance by the Funk Brothers, with a starring role for the bass.

A rattle of the snare and toms from Benny Benjamin’s mix ‘n’ match studio kit introduces a strutting medium-tempo rhythm entirely driven by Jamerson. He makes his Fender Precision sound almost as fruity as a tuba in a New Orleans marching band as he sits on top of the 4/4, adding his own distinctive hook to the track by inserting little descending 16th-note runs on the fourth beat of each bar, occasionally adding variation by switching the run to the second beat, and in the bridge — as the drummer adds a subtle Latin accent — sometimes extending the motif into a run across both the third and fourth beats.

The choice of notes in these beautifully articulated 16th-note flurries could only have come from someone with a jazz background, someone used to searching the chords for the most interesting variations. That’s what Jamerson had, and this is an example of how it could put it to creative use in the service of a pretty little pop song, probably something he’d already forgotten by the time he got into his car that evening and headed away from 2648 West Grand Blvd.

I’ve also been listening to his playing on the Four Tops’ hits, specifically “Bernadette”, on which he spins an amazing variety of figures around Richard “Pistol” Allen’s imperturbable four-to-the-bar snare drum beat with astonishing flexibility and imagination, and “Ask the Lonely”, where he does the opposite: by dropping anchor on the tonic while the chords shift, avoiding any hint of decoration, he underscores the song’s piercing melancholy.

But back to “I’ve Got a Story”. Recorded on June 28, 1962, it remained unheard for more than 30 years. Obviously it didn’t get past Berry Gordy Jr’s celebrated quality control committee. Could that be because, at 1:40 and 1:47, in the course of this virtuoso display, Jamerson hits two of the very few unconvincing notes of his career? Unlikely. They’re not wrong. They’re just not the perfect choices by a man to whom, in the dozen years that counted. perfection was an everyday matter of fact.

Reconsidering the Paris Sisters

Paris Sisters 5So now we know that Veronica Bennett was not the first lead singer of a female vocal trio to whom Phil Spector proposed marriage. That would be Priscilla Paris, according to the testimony of her sister Sherrell in the sleeve notes to Always Heavenly, the first proper retrospective of the Paris Sisters’ intriguing career, put together by the Ace label from the group’s recordings for several labels between 1961 and 1968.

The youngest of the Filtzer sisters (as they were born) had a voice to which the adjectives “breathy” and “seductive” hardly did justice. If the lusty, gospel-trained Darlene Love existed at one end of the girl-group spectrum, Priscilla defined the other, establishing a template for Shelley Fabares (“Johnny Angel”), Louise Cordet (“I’m Just a Baby”), and many others. The sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me”, a high-school pop ballad in which Spector lightly updated the formula of the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, was one of the big hits of 1961, and it is remarkable that they never got close to matching its success.

Alec Palao, the erudite and assiduous compiler of this new anthology, demonstrates that the Paris Sisters’ career amounted to more than one hit and one approach. The 25 songs selected here include productions by Terry Melcher, Jack Nitzsche, Nik Venet and Mike Curb as well as Spector, with composer credits that include Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Doc Pomus, P.F. Sloan, David Gates and Jackie DeShannon.

Spector had prefaced the come-hither formula of “I Love How You Love Me” with “Be My Boy” and tried to replicate it with “He Knows I Love Him Too Much”. The later producers — Melcher and Nitzsche in particular — moved the sisters towards the more assertive approach of the Crystals and the Ronettes, and several of these tracks belong among the many homages to Spector’s mature style. This Nitzsche-produced version of Mann and Weil’s epically atmospheric “See That Boy” allows Priscilla to open up and show genuine vocal power and flexibility, the result of a full Gold Star echo-chamber treatment rivalling the original by the Righteous Brothers (who did it as “See That Girl”). Venet’s baion-beat restyling of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” is another delightful example. Others, such as the lilting “When I’m Alone With You”, written by Sloan and Steve Barri, and Gates’s “Greener Days”, edge towards a poppish folk-rock.

Most intriguing of all are Priscilla’s own compositions: always accomplished, demonstrating a real sense of drama, and sometimes venturing beyond the merely idiomatic. While “My Good Friend” is done up by Nitzsche as a very successful Spector pastiche, “I Came a Long Way to Nowhere”, “Why Do I Take It From You” and “I’m Me” show a greater range and contain strong hints of authorial soul-searching. They give the composer a chance to show that she could move beyond the doe-eyed mode to show an impressive strength and an interesting vulnerability.

The strangest track is the Sisters’ last recording with Priscilla, “Stand Naked Clown”, composed by Hal Blair (who wrote songs for Elvis’s movies) and Dean Kay (who co-wrote the Sinatra favourite “That’s Life”). Recorded in 1968, produced by Clancy Grass, the group’s manager (later married to Albeth) and the Wrecking Crew guitarist Don Peake (Priscilla’s boyfriend after the break-up of her marriage), it resembles something that Jacques Brel might have written for the Shangri-Las, with a semi-recitative intro against a bowed bass, abrupt switches between bolero rhythms and rubato passages, sudden crescendos, and a wonderfully melodramatic vocal.

There seems to have been a lot more to Priscilla than most of us could ever have suspected from that first and only hit, recorded when she was 16. She left the group in 1968 to pursue a solo career, first in Los Angeles, then in London, and finally in Paris, where she died after a fall in 2004, aged 59. Ace have a compilation of her solo work that I must now investigate. Albeth, the eldest of the sisters, retired to raise a family and died in 2014; she and Sherrell helped Palao in the assembly of this absorbing, hugely enjoyable and often surprising collection.

* The photograph of (left to right) Priscilla, Sherrell and Albeth Paris was taken at Sunset Sound studio in 1966. It appears in the booklet accompanying Always Heavenly.

Matana Roberts in Alphabet City

The StoneMatana Roberts was reminiscing about the first time she played with the great bassist Henry Grimes. It was during the New York blackout of 2004, when she was scheduled to appear at the Jazz Gallery with a group including Grimes and the pianist Vijay Iyer. She had been travelling on the L train from her home in Queens, and it had  just emerged from the tunnel under the East River when all power vanished across the length and breadth of the city.

The passengers were allowed to get out and clamber up to the surface, and she set off to cross Manhattan to the club, which in those days had its home on the west side. She got there to discover that she and Grimes were the only members of the band who had made it to Hudson Street. In response to the situation, they played duets for stranded workers. Afterwards she walked all the way back to Queens. “I would never wear heels again,” she said. “You never know when you might have to walk home.”

She told the story on Sunday, the last night of the season she was curating at the Stone, John Zorn’s bare-bones performance space in Alphabet City, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street (seen in the photograph above). Twice nightly for six days, with a different line-up for each show, she invited groups varying in size from three to six members to improvise together for an hour or so. I made it to four of the shows, and some of the musicians I missed included the pianists Myra Melford and Jason Moran, the flautist Nicole Mitchell, the cellist Tomeka Reid, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the guitarist Liberty Ellman.

The first show I caught featured Roberts with Iyer and the koto player Miya Masaoka, creating three-part inventions of great delicacy and intricacy, the set culminating in a short piece in which they discovered a swelling, hymn-like lyricism. The following night I was impressed by the contributions of the trumpeters Nate Wooley, in the first set, and Forbes Graham, in the second.

Roberts was at pains to explain how important this season, first proposed two years ago, was to her. I suspect that the penultimate set, the one that featured a quartet including Grimes, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride, offered particular satisfaction. Malone, she said, was one of the first people she played with after she arrived in New York. Pride had pointed her towards the paid work that kept her going. “And Mr Grimes,” she added, “has been an inspiration for ever.”

With Pride using bells and gongs as well as his regular kit and Malone flicking out fast-moving note clusters while Roberts deployed her throaty tone in a series of powerful incantations, the blend of textures and the rapt mood of the opening passages reminded me that Grimes had been a participant on Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid, a favourite (and nowadays somewhat under appreciated) album from 1966. But then the players stepped up their intensity, Roberts responding with passionate cries recalling Albert Ayler. It was a wonderful performance, full of wisdom and empathy, with Grimes — who turned 80 in November — a marvel throughout.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think very highly of Matana Roberts (I wrote about her last year here and here). At the Stone she led off every performance that I saw with great energy, and listened to her colleagues with the same intensity with which she played. She could be proud of the whole mini-season, but of that hour on Sunday in particular.


David Bowie blackstarFor many years I dismissed David Bowie as a shallow opportunist. What was he doing that Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, conceptually and musically, hadn’t done with more wit and originality? I saw him at the Greyhound in Croydon in the summer of 1972, supported by Roxy Music in a pub room that can’t have held more than 200 people. He did the Ziggy Stardust thing, he and the band in full costume, and I didn’t care for it much.

Those particular songs still don’t do anything for me, but time sometimes dissolves prejudices and now I can see that what I took to be shallowness and opportunism were aspects of what we call the pop process: the way things evolve through mimesis and metamorphosis, adapting to their time. And the response to the sudden news of his death leaves no doubt of the profound impact he had on people whose lives were then in the process of being formed.

It wasn’t until the time of the Berlin trilogy that I started to take him seriously, but then he lost me again. I went to see him again at Wembley Arena in the early ’80s, and he looked to me like a man who’d run dry. But I liked the records he made with Nile Rodgers — if you’ve seen Frances Ha, you’ll know the wonderful sequence in which Greta Gerwig’s character skips through the streets of New York to the sound of “Modern Love” and the whole cinema seems to lift about a foot off the ground.

This morning I found myself going into Soho to buy his new album, queuing behind a bunch of people doing exactly the same thing. I could tell you that I was going to buy it today in any case, and it would be true: the idea of Bowie working with jazz musicians sounded intriguing, if not necessarily guaranteed to work.

I’m listening to blackstar now, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Bowie knew exactly what he was doing when he scheduled its release. It sounds like the supremely elegant farewell of an artist standing squarely on the platform of his past achievements in order to reach still further, one last time. It’s worthy of the famous line from Macbeth: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”

It isn’t jazz, of course, or anything like it. The skills of the musicians are put to a different purpose. In the mesh of textures created from the available palette, in the brilliant settings of his allusive lyrics, in the masterful sense of pacing (listen to the closing of “Lazarus”), in the aching poignancy of “Dollar Days” (“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see”), in the purposeful channeling of energy and the constant sense of newness from start to finish, this sounds like Bowie music at its most fully realised and powerfully affecting. What a way to say goodbye.

Natalie Cole 1950-2015

Natalie Cole’s death last week, at the age of 65, reminded me of her part in one of the most surreal and exhilarating evenings of my life, when she joined a company of distinguished American gospel singers and musicians for a performance in a 17th century church in the English Midlands.

The date was November 27, 1980, and the place was All Saints’ Church in Northampton, rebuilt with 1,000 tons of timber donated by King Charles II after a fire had laid waste to the town centre in 1675. It made an interesting environment not just for the performers but the congregation, consisting of personnel from the various US Air Force bases dotted around that part of England in the Cold War era.

Invited by the producers of a TV programme called In the Spirit, these men and women played an important role in an event that also featured the Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir and the soloists Dorothy Norwood and Marion Williams, plus a first-class rhythm section: organ, piano, guitar, bass and drums. I took my father — a Church of England parson, and a music lover, who I correctly thought would be intrigued by the experience — and my friend and colleague Simon Frith. Apart from the TV crew, we were probably the only white faces in the place.

As you can hear from the nine-minute clip, Cole’s rendering of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was well received. She was, after all, still basking in the glow of her 1975 dancefloor hit, “This Will Be”. On the night, however, I remember thinking that she didn’t seem entirely natural in this context: by comparison with the great female gospel singers, she sounded a little shrill and insubstantial. But she certainly gave it what she had, and you can watch the beautiful sway of the robed choir to the band’s 12/8 rhythm.

To see and hear James Cleveland — one of the founding fathers of modern gospel music — was to witness a masterclass in the manipulation of a willing congregation. When he delivered his purring rewrite of Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs”, featured three years earlier on his Grammy-winning Live at Carnegie Hall album, he wrecked the house almost as comprehensively as the Great Fire of Northampton 305 years earlier.


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